Since its release last Friday, Feb. 16, “Black Panther” has earned almost unanimous critical acclaim and has smashed box office records worldwide. Fans embraced “Black Panther” months before its release for featuring a non-white male lead and a cast made up predominantly of actors of color.
Excitement was buoyed by announcements like the fact that writer Ta-Nehisi Coates (known for writing frankly about cultural, social, and political issues, especially in relation to African-Americans) would be penning a new Black Panther comic book series, and celebrated rapper Kendrick Lamar would be curating the movie’s soundtrack. “Black Panther” exceeded the already high expectations for the film, managing to deliver a poignant social message wrapped inside of a movie that alternates between being ridiculously cool, hilarious, and deeply moving.
The audience was first introduced to our hero Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) during “Captain America: Civil War,” and “Black Panther” picks up where the events of “Captain America: Civil War” left off. T’Challa returns to his home country of Wakanda to assume the throne and the mantle of Black Panther, the protector of Wakanda, after the death of his father, King T’Chaka, making what should have been a triumphant homecoming tinged with grief.
T’Challa’s rule as king is quickly challenged by domestic and international threats. Internally, there is ideological discord between those who believe that Wakanda should open itself up to outside influence and those who favor isolationism, and T’Challa must toe the line between protecting his country’s interests as a king and defending all peoples of the world as a superhero.
In addition to a compelling plot, “Black Panther” serves up stunning visuals and sounds. Director Ryan Coogler brings Wakanda to life in a beautifully realized way. Wakanda is a fictionalized African nation that escaped colonization because it was founded upon a huge vibranium deposit (the most powerful metal in the universe). It is the most technologically-advanced country in the world and has developed an African identity separate from colonial influences.
Coogler works closely with costume designer Ruth Carter, cinematographer Rachel Morrison, and musical artist Kendrick Lamar (among others) to create a fresh and distinctive Wakandan “voice.”
Black Panther is anchored by a stellar supporting cast: characters like T’Challa’s former lover and current spy Nakia ( Lupita N’yongo), CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), and T’Challa’s best friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) are all given their chance to shine. Sure to become a fan favorite is T’Challa’s teenage sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), a tech genius who injects a world of humor and joy into the movie as the youngest character in the cast.
But the stars of the film are King T’Challa and primary antagonist Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan). Chadwick Boseman gives the performance of his career with his nuanced portrayal of T’Challa, a young king capable of great leadership who struggles between his desire to follow the antiquated teachings of the father he loves and to carve out a new path for himself.
Killmonger is easily one of Marvel’s best villains of the last ten years, with his gut-wrenching backstory and clear reasons for challenging T’Challa’s rule. Michael B. Jordan expertly switches between explosive aggression and emotional vulnerability; even as Killmonger does terrible things in pursuit of his goals, the audience can empathize with him because they can understand why he feels he must do these things.
Part of the reason why “Black Panther” has been so enormously successful is because it doesn’t shy away from confronting social issues like poverty, racism, and other forms of discrimination, but it also doesn’t put those issues at the forefront of the film.
Instead, “Black Panther” is a celebration of African culture and a watershed moment in the history of African-American cinema. Comic book fans who are worried about feeling alienated by the social themes of the movie should not worry. At its core, “Black Panther” is still a tremendously enjoyable film for all superhero fans, with the humor and engaging plot that has come to define Marvel movies.
Marvel Studios has been churning out superhero films for a decade now, and at times it can be hard to make the same concept seem original every single time. With “Black Panther,” the 31-year-old Coogler has introduced fascinating ideas that filmmakers can explore in many films to come.
As Marvel moves past Phase Three and into Phase Four of its Extended Universe and prepares to retire older veterans like Captain America and Iron Man, it’s clear that they hope to set up new heroes like Black Panther as one of the leaders of the new Avengers. If there is anything that “Black Panther” demonstrates, it is that this king and his court are definitely up to the job.